When it comes to biblical eschatology, a common view is that the wicked will be destroyed, resurrected to condemnation, and then permanently eliminated from the presence of God’s people. God’s people will thereafter live in a perfect world devoid of wickedness and suffering. There is reasonably strong scriptural support for this belief, and it readily appeals to many people who look forward to a life free from suffering and wickedness. As a result, such view is adopted by many as an irrefutable reading of the scriptures concerning the end times of the world. For me, however, there has always been something disconcerting about this view, something too pessimistic to fit with my belief in God. If all things are possible with God, and he is inexhaustibly merciful and forgiving, how then could such a scenario come about where people are ‘cut off’ forever? And if God is the source of all goodness and beauty, then would his eschatological plan not be at least as good and as beautiful as the best that man can envision?
My uncompromising optimism finally found its scriptural basis when contemplating what was meant by Jesus in Luke 11:29-32:
29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here. (Luke 11:29-32, NIV)
The focus of the passage is on wisdom and signs. Solomon, King David’s son and successor to the throne, was widely known for his great wisdom, having recorded Proverbs and other wisdom books, and having been sought out by wisdom-seekers around the world. This makes it all the more intriguing when Jesus unabashedly declares that his wisdom is even greater than Solomon’s. This claim would appeal especially to Greeks, who had a strong interest in philosophy. For the Jews, however, wisdom was not enough; Jesus had to offer a sign to prove he was a prophet sent by God. This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22).
Jesus performed many miracles throughout his life and ministry: healing the lame, curing the blind, restoring the diseased, feeding the hungry, and even resurrecting the dead (Matthew 11:5). Nevertheless, according to his own testimony, none of these were to count as his ‘sign to this generation’. This fact leads me to believe that there is something especially significant about his one sign, the sign he compares to that of Jonah. To best understand this sign, it would therefore be instructive to examine closely the sign of Jonah mentioned by Jesus.
Jonah was a Jewish prophet of the Old Testament. As the account goes, Jonah was swallowed up by a giant fish and spent three days and three nights in its belly (Jonah 1:17). Then after three days and three nights, God commanded the fish to vomit out Jonah, and it did so (Jonah 2:10). Immediately thereafter, God commanded Jonah to arise and go to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance, warning them of imminent destruction unless they turn from their wicked ways.
A parallel account is offered in Matthew’s Gospel concerning Jesus. As with Jonah, God commanded Jesus to preach a message of repentance: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17). Within the context of this message of repentance, the ‘sign of Jonah’ begins with Jesus’ death and resurrection: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Why then is this parallel so significant? What made this the great sign for the generation, greater than any of the miracles Jesus performed throughout his life and ministry?
To answer this question, let’s consider the rest of Jonah’s story. Upon hearing Jonah’s warning of their imminent destruction, the entire city of Nineveh repented and turned from their evil ways (Jonah 3:5-9). As a result, “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). This is the only time in the bible where an entire city of a hundred and twenty thousand people all repented of their evil ways and turned back to God and his ways. The result was that God relented and did not destroy them. God was merciful because the destruction was contingent on their continuing in the path of destruction – which they turned back from upon hearing Jonah’s warning.
To recap where we’re at so far, the following parallels are explicitly drawn in the scriptures between Jesus and Jonah, even by Jesus himself. The first three are completed parallels while the latter two are open-ended as to whether they will someday diverge or continue to parallel the account of Jonah:
- Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a giant fish.
Jesus spent three days and three nights in the tomb.
- Jonah was vomited out of the fish’s mouth onto the dry land.
Jesus was raised up out of the tomb.
- Jonah preached a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh.
Jesus preached a message of repentance to the entire generation.
- The entire city of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s warning.
Many have repented at Jesus’ warning while others have not yet repented.
- God relented of the destruction of Nineveh.
The destruction of the whole world has not yet come.
According to the Book of Revelation where Jesus warns John of the unrepentant generation’s imminent destruction, numerous plagues and calamities are to befall humanity:
8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him. 10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. (Revelation 16:8-11)
The fact that the plague-ravaged people prophesied in Revelation had not repented of their ways is explicitly made evident in the above passage. They are said to have ‘refused to repent’. This recurring theme runs throughout the entire bible, where God calls his people to repentance and warns them of their imminent destruction. In each case, the destruction is contingent on whether they repent.
This brings us back to my original pair of questions concerning a common view of eschatology: If all things are possible with God, and he is inexhaustibly merciful and forgiving, how then could such a scenario come about where people are ‘cut off’ forever? And if God is the source of all goodness and beauty, then would his eschatological plan not be at least as good and as beautiful as the best that man can envision?
In light of the parallel made by Jesus between Jonah and himself, my uncompromising optimism now has biblical justification. The widespread destruction prophesied in Revelation is contingent on the world’s repentance. As was the case with Nineveh, it is within God’s mercy to relent of the disaster prophesied in Revelation if the whole world repents of its self-destructive ways and instead turns to God and his ways. Consider the following passage:
8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
Here we see that God continues to be patient with unrepentant ones due to his great mercy and the love he has for all of mankind. From the perspective of eternity, any amount of time is worth waiting if it means even just one more person comes to repentance. And what are we waiting for? We are waiting for the restoration of paradise life and the complete fulfillment of God’s plan for mankind. If the angels in heaven rejoice over just one sinner repenting (Luke 15:10), can you imagine how great and beautiful it would be when that last sinner finally repents and every good thing God promised is fulfilled?
Returning to the concluding passages of the Book of Jonah, we find Jonah having pity on a plant that sprang up overnight and then withered and died, and God comparing Nineveh to that plant:
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
If God was merciful to Nineveh, who repented, it is reasonable to extrapolate that God has that same attitude toward all of mankind, especially in light of the passage cited from 2 Peter 3:8-9 where it says he is ‘not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’.
A key insight into godly wisdom is indicated in the phrase ‘who cannot tell their right hand from their left’. Jesus similarly prayed to God to have mercy on those who were mercilessly beating him to death when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34a). We should likewise be of a patient and merciful attitude toward those who continue unrepentantly in their wicked and self-destructive ways, viewing them as unable to discern left from right. We should pray for their enlightenment to repentance, not for their destruction.
We are all created to live according to the fullness of the image and likeness God purposed for us all. While I long for the day where God’s promises are fulfilled, I have yet a greater longing that the day is delayed long enough for everyone to repent and enjoy in its fruit. I do not look forward to anyone’s destruction but to widespread repentance. I wholeheartedly believe in God and have faith in him to accomplish all things, and I pray that Jesus’ message of repentance for mankind ends the same way Jonah’s did for Nineveh. In the words of Jesus, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Again in Jeremiah, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27). This indeed would prove Jesus’ sign to be far greater than that of Jonah.